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What's the deal with sherry?

A wine long associated with mass production and mean portions in tiny glasses, how is sherry making strides in the 21st century?

Sherry. A word that for many, continues to unearth haunting images of cut-glass decanters gathering dust on living room sideboards, or that litre bottle of ‘Medium’ opened for Christmas then banished to the kitchen cupboard, practically full.

In fact, sherry is one of the most exciting, varied and engaging wines that you will find on UK shelves – notwithstanding the price that it commands. Apart from the familiar 'Medium' style, there are many incarnations of sherry to be enjoyed apart from the amber-coloured liquid we all know. The lighter, fresher styles of sherry are born thanks mainly to 'flor', a film of protective yeast that gives the deliciously saline, bready zip to bottles bearing the name Fino, or its Sanlucar cousin Manzanilla. For yeast to cease to do its work, the wine needs to be fortified above 16% alcohol, whereby oxidative ageing begins to take place in barrel. From this point, wines such as Amontillado (basically a Fino fortified and then aged for longer), and Oloroso (a sherry fortified from the beginning avoiding contact with 'flor') are born. All of these wines are commonly an amalgamation of several base wines from different vintages, a practice known as 'solera'.

Like other fortified wine-producing regions, Jerez has had a viticultural and terroir-focused rejuvenation in the last few decades, many producers striving more and more for quality. Unlike port or madeira however, sherry’s new age hasn’t quite hit the press, at least in the noses and palates of many British consumers. Before trying some of the vibrant and awe-inspiring wines that have sprung out of recent passion projects and collaborations in the region, this was much how I viewed it as well.

The key thing is for sherry to be treated as a wine like any other, and to be consumed as such. Many producers are pushing the half bottle format, encouraging consumers to enjoy more sherry, and to quash once and for all the decades-old curse of the neglected half-finished bottle. These adorable and classy little halves, such as the slender Mosel-esque ones adopted by the passionate team at Diatomists Wines, are gloriously easy to polish off in one sitting – which is exactly the intention behind them! Sherry should be swirled, nosed and gurgled like your favourite table wine - no more handing a fiddly thimble of Amontillado to Grandma on Christmas Eve either. Give her a proper glass.

Sherry’s soil is very particular, the majority made up of the chalky, scintillatingly bright albariza. This dusty base retains moisture to counteract the high temperatures, while its sun-catching whiteness reflects light and heat back onto the vines to ensure full ripeness. In Jerez when it rains, it very much pours, so luckily albariza encourages drainage of excess water as much as it retains it to nourish the vines throughout the baking sunlight. Low in nutrients and organic matter – what might be called ‘poor soils’ – albariza’s lack of resources is in fact an asset. The scarcity of resources encourages the vines to go into survival mode and produce low quantities of very concentrated fruit, rather than an abundance of foliage and less concentrated grapes. Seems ideal doesn’t it …after all, all good wines start with good fruit.

Alongside a shift in viticultural practice, stocks of older wines and soleras - asleep for decades in the cellars of independent sherry stockists or almacenistas – have been liberated and released in small quantities by discerning teams of sherry fanatics. Uniquely detached from the vineyard in this part of their quest, these producers (or perhaps in the old way, ‘shippers’), have carefully selected what they believe to be the highest quality boti after months of tasting and analyzing in the cellars of different almacenistas. As a result, we are being spoiled with ancient Olorosos, mature Manzanillas and many other glorious sherries that have been brought out into the open often for the first time from their decades-long slumber in barrel.

Through these select bottlings and special releases, I discovered that sherry is as much about uncovering the great wines of the past as it is making progress in the vineyard - and what a privilege it is to behold them! Clearly, sherry has always been one of the most amazing, complex and good value fine wines you can buy - many just haven’t been bottled yet!

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